Multiple layers of crisis shape everyday life for homeless migrants living in the UK.

We're thinking about how these crises make homeless migrants particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, but also how COVID-19 is producing additional barriers to resolving immigration statuses and moving beyond homelessness. These are complex matters, as structural matrices of inequality are encountered by individuals with their own particular life experiences, backgrounds and struggles. 

This second post in our series titled Homeless Migrants and COVID-19: Mapping the Layers of Crisis looks closely at the issue of terminology: Who are 'homeless migrants', how are they defined for the purpose of our research project, and why does it matter?

What’s in a name? Defining 'Homeless Migrants'

How 'homeless migrants' are defined plays a crucial role in how they are made visible or invisible both socially and politically. In March 2020, the British government responded to concerns about the vulnerability of homeless persons to COVID-19 by launching the 'Everyone In' scheme, which successfully placed around 29,000 rough sleepers into emergency accommodation. 

Yet, as charities and organisations across the UK have made clear rough sleeping is just one experience of homelessness, with others including: 

  • 'sofa surfing' (moving between the homes of family and/or friends)
  • Squatting 
  • exploitative living situations
  • precarious accommodation without official tenancy agreements 
  • temporary forms of accommodation such as hostels and lodging houses

Indeed, in 2018 housing charity Shelter estimated there to be around 320,000 people experiencing homelessness in Britain (although this is likely to be an underestimate), of which at least 300,000 were estimated to be living in temporary forms of accommodation. Another charitable organisation, Simon on the Streets, approximates that individuals who are 'sofa-surfing' make up around 71,000 of the overall population of people experiencing homelessness today. 

This is particularly important because, as the homelessness charity St Mungo's have highlighted, COVID-19 and its consequential lockdowns are pushing individuals already experiencing insecure living conditions into increasingly precarious situations, including rough sleeping. The most recent Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) data showed that the number of people sleeping rough in London once and subsequently transitioning to permanent rough sleeping has increased by 23% compared to the same period last year. Clearly, any strategy that aims to safeguard already homeless or at risk individuals must respond to the full spectrum of homelessness as a lived and emergent experience. 

Factors that can lead to homelessness

Sociological research on homelessness has found that there is no straightforward explanation for why people become homeless but that it is a complex convergence of many factors including: 

  • a lack of affordable housing
  • economic restructuring
  • drug and alcohol addiction
  • mental illness
  • unemployment
  • disabilities and health problems
  • lack of social capital and social ties
  • rapid urban growth
  • changes in the labour market.

As Schlay and Rossi claim, these factors often interact, 'multiply[ing] the effects of each to the extent that it becomes impossible for many people to acquire and maintain permanent housing'.

Just as homelessness charity Crisis estimates that official statistics on homelessness leave at least 62% of single homeless people invisible, data from St Mungo's underscores that women are amongst those most likely to be experiencing 'hidden' forms of homelessness, with Centrepoint sharing similar concerns regarding young people. The visibility and invisibility of homeless individuals, then, is impacted by structural factors. Similarly, for migrants direct and structural racisms shape and are shaped by experiences and representations of migrant homelessness. For example, that it is impossible to source accurate data regarding the number of homeless migrants in the UK is largely due to the inaccessibility of statutory support services for migrants, coupled with the fear of engaging services in light of the 2012 'Hostile Environment' policies (the focus of our next post) which forced statutory bodies to share data with the Home Office. Nevertheless, Crisis estimates that one-third of the individuals currently accessing their support services are non-UK nationals. That migrants currently make up less than one-tenth of the British population throws into stark relief the particular vulnerability of migrants to homelessness. 

The importance of being precise in terminology is further accentuated by the need to grapple with shifting realities in how the state manages migration and migrant communities. The ways in which difference is regulated in Britain, relies upon racialised constructions of 'Others' that are manifold, complex, fluid, and situational. Indeed, in the contemporary moment the project of 'Brexit' is sharply redefining EEA migrant difference, with individuals previously conferred the right to remain in the UK facing new immigration controls, as well as increasingly hostile rhetoric both politically and socially. Whilst, then, embodying the category of 'non-UK national' increases one's vulnerability to precarious living conditions, homeless migrants are by no means a homogenous population with singular experiences of homelessness. 

Thinking critically about statistics

Interestingly, despite the prevalence of debates surrounding migration in the UK, particularly in recent years, there remains no official legal definition of 'migrant' in the UK. Indeed, in the public sphere 'migrant', 'immigrant', 'asylum-seeker' and 'refugee' are used interchangeably in ways which elide diverse roots and routes of migration, as well as specific encounters with the state’s immigration complex. The ethnocentric nature of much research considers individuals only as immigrants rather than also as emigrants, thus overlooking the social origins and trajectories of those who have travelled to the UK. Moreover, as Umut Erel observes, much research treats migrant groups as homogenous entities and glosses over 'intra-ethnic differentiations and hierarchies'

Just as with homelessness more broadly then, migrant homelessness has its own issues with invisibility. The graph below (figure 3.2 on page 20 of the Crisis UK publication A home for all: Understanding migrant homelessness in Great Britain) provides some baseline data on the scale of migrant homelessness, evidencing the different numbers of migrant households accessing local authority support (under the 2018 Homelessness Reduction Act) as categorised by their immigration status.

Bar graph showing breakdown of households accepted under the Homelessness Reduction Act (2018) by immigration status 2018/19

Data like this provides an important entry point into understanding the extent of migrant homelessness, yet it also remains extremely limited. Firstly, in focusing on individuals accepted under the Homelessness Reduction Act, this data obscures the fact that many homeless migrants are not eligible for local authority support. Secondly, engaging state methods of categorising migrants according to their 'immigration status' obscures the complexity and specificity of individual experiences, as well as invisibilising the substantial number of undocumented individuals residing in the UK today. According to research published by The Mayor of London in 2020, this number is estimated to be around 674,000, with more than half of the UK's undocumented migrant population residing in London. As such, in employing nationality instead of immigration status, graphs like the one below tend to represent more usefully the scale of migrant homelessness:

Line graph showing the number of rough sleepers in London by Nationality, 2008/9 to 2018/19

The graph above (figure 3.3 on page 21 of the Crisis UK publication A home for all: Understanding migrant homelessness in Great Britain) suggests that of the 8,000 individuals sleeping rough in London in 2018/19, half were migrants. Furthermore, of these 4,000 migrants, 2,500 were nationals from Central and Eastern Europe. However, aside from the limitations of a London-centric scope, this graph is also limited by its focus on rough sleepers. As discussed above, rough sleeping represents a small fraction of the overall spectrum of homelessness experienced by migrants in the UK today. 

Diverse experiences, shared precarity

Being specific in our vocabulary is crucial for both our studies and our modes of activism in the field. Research suggests that different communities of migrants are likely to share particular experiences of homelessness, with EEA nationals more likely to be sleeping rough, and non-EEA individuals more likely to be 'sofa surfing' through friend and/or family networks

Furthermore, for those currently in the process of seeking asylum, shared rooms or houses provided by the Home Office (and as such dependent upon one's asylum application) are the most likely form of overnight accommodation. Whilst the precarity of such living conditions is familiar across contexts, responding to them requires specific knowledge and strategising. Equally important to this aim, is the acknowledgement that the diversity of these experiences reflects the ways in which migrants are racialised by the state in distinct ways, and conferred and denied particular sets of resources for pursuing liveable life in the UK. 

Finally, experiences of homelessness are also shaped by the social imaginaries of the so-called 'native' population. These imaginaries racialise migrant communities vis-à-vis white Britishness through various and varying logics of difference. As the Migration Observatory has reported, media coverage of im/migration in Britain (which has increased year-on-year since 2011) fuels imaginaries of brown and black individuals as 'illegal immigrants', even for those who are British nationals. On the other hand, EEA migrants, and specifically those from Central and Eastern Europe, are constructed as hypermasculine single men, often posing a criminal threat.

For homeless migrants, these imaginaries shape encounters with local populations, producing a diverse politics of risk for individuals sleeping rough as well as distinct experiences of interacting with public services and institutions. Importantly, these increasingly hostile imaginaries also correlate to increasingly explicit state hostility towards migrant communities, beginning with the 2012 introduction of the 'Hostile Environment' strategy which forms the focus of the next post in this series. 

'Homeless Migrants': a working definition 

In light of these critiques, how do we plan to define 'homeless migrants' for the purpose of our study? In formulating our approach to researching experiences of migrant homelessness during COVID-19 we are conceptualising homelessness as a broad category that refers to the full spectrum of precarious and impermanent housing situations - from sofa-surfing to rough sleeping. Our initial point of entry will be those using homelessness services. 

The 'homeless migrants' that we will work with will again be broadly defined, including all non-UK nationals who have experienced homelessness during the COVID-19 crisis. We will engage with a range of homeless migrant 'communities' throughout the study whilst remaining sensitive to the differences within and between these communities. Throughout the course of this blog, we shall continue to build upon and evolve our unique critical approach. 


This post is part of a series titled Homeless Migrants and COVID-19: Mapping the Layers of Crisis.

This post reflects the views of the University of Portsmouth research team only, and not those of our project collaborators, the homelessness charity St Mungo's. All figures reproduced from the publication A home for all: Understanding migrant homelessness in Great Britain with permission from Crisis UK. 

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